Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Remembering the volunteers

by Dave Bretl - Walworth County Administrator

April 26, 2012

The Walworth County Board took time, at a recent meeting, to commemorate National Volunteer Week, which took place during the week of April 15. In addition to recognizing the week and thanking the hundreds of volunteers who donate their time and talent to our county each year, supervisors acknowledged the special contributions of nine volunteers who have worked closely with several county departments.

As budgets have become tighter over the past decade, I have come to appreciate the increasingly important role that volunteers play in delivering services to the public. Walworth County government supports two volunteer initiatives.

The first effort is led by our volunteer organizer, Colleen Lesniak. Colleen is a county employee who is responsible for placing volunteers in county departments and programs. Foremost among her duties is to promote awareness of the importance of volunteerism, both among the public and within the county organization. The first half of this equation is straightforward. The public needs to know that the county has a need for volunteers and what types of opportunities are available. The second aspect of creating awareness, by challenging county managers to think of ways in which volunteers could serve their programs, has been an interesting evolution to watch.

Some county departments were already sold on the idea. Our nursing home and special needs school have long histories of engaging volunteers.

Other departments, including my own administration department, were far less familiar with the power of volunteers. Persuaded by Colleen's efforts and the excellent results obtained throughout the county, volunteers now serve in many county departments. Health and Human Services transportation, meals on wheels and senior lunch centers utilize, by far, the most hours of volunteer service.

From the perspective of the volunteers, their reasons for donating their time are varied, as well. In many cases, retired folks like to stay active in promoting programs that they support or just keeping their work skills sharp. For a time, the recession added unemployed workers to the mix of volunteers.

Finally, interns from the two four-year universities in the county, Whitewater and George Williams, as well as students from Gateway Technical College, learn valuable lessons on the job to supplement their classroom work. In addition to creating interest, both among volunteers and county departments, Colleen is responsible for ensuring background checks are conducted and statistics regarding the program are maintained.

The county's volunteer effort really began to take off in 2009. In that year's budget, Colleen's position, which was part-time and dedicated solely to the nursing home, was upgraded to full-time status with a countywide mission. Office space in the county's Government Center was provided as well. The numbers speak to the success of the program. In 2011, volunteers donated 37,276 hours of service to county programs. This is an increase of nearly 10,000 hours from 2010. In terms of planning for positions, 2,080 hours of work per year is often regarded as the amount of production attributable to one full-time position. At this rate, volunteers provided the equivalent labor of 18 full-time positions.

A second volunteer program with ties to the county is provided through a non-profit group called Volunteer Connection, Inc. The program used to be known as the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).

That title brought with it federal money that was used to provide administrative support for the hundreds of volunteers that worked in nursing homes and similar non-profit agencies throughout Walworth County. Unfortunately, in 2010, the group lost its RSVP name and funding. Not skipping a beat, the organization changed its name to Volunteer Connection, Inc. and incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation. Patti O'Brien currently serves as its executive director. Volunteer Connection shares office space with the county's own volunteer program at the Government Center, creating a sort of one-stop shop for volunteers.

Beginning in 2011, the county has made an annual appropriation of $10,000 to the Volunteer Connection. The return on that investment has been considerable. Volunteers in that program contributed 41,429 hours of service to community organizations last year.

Of course, the county's own program and Volunteer Connection aren't the only source of volunteers in Walworth County. I am continually amazed at the number of charitable hours logged by the many civic organizations throughout the county.

If you are interested in volunteering to support a county program, call Colleen Lesniak at (262) 741-4223. For other volunteer opportunities, call Patti O'Brien at (262) 723-5383. One way to get into the spirit is by participating in the National Day of Action. Both Volunteer Connection and Walworth County are helping the United Way of Walworth County sponsor this one-day program aimed at promoting volunteerism. Volunteers will meet at the Government Center in Elkhorn on June 21st and travel to different locations throughout the county, completing projects for non-profit organizations and people in need. Call Colleen or Patti if you might be interested in participating.

–––The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.